“On the Divide” Response Post • Willa Cather Short Story Project

Before we jump into this month’s story, I want to let those of you in Connecticut know that the quarterly Willa Cather Book Group will meet again in October.
What: Alexander’s Bridge (1912)
When: Thursday, October 21, 2021, at 1 pm
Where: The Wood Memorial Library & Museum, 783 Main Street, South Windsor, CT

Cather’s college graduation photo, 1895 (source)

This month’s story is “On the Divide,” published in the Overland Monthly magazine in January 1896. Have you had a chance to read it?

Like some of the earlier stories we’ve read in Phase 2 of the Willa Cather Short Story Project, you can see the themes Cather was working through and developing that would run through her later work.

One of these is the character of “Crazy Lou” who evolves into “Crazy Ivar” in Cather’s second novel, O Pioneers! Lou in this story isn’t a character, his name is spoken to invoke a gothic-like fear, but Ivar is an actual character on the page in the novel. Although Ivar is a minor character, he is complex and adds depth to the story.

In “On the Divide,” men are pushed to the edge of sanity by the relentless wind, the monotonous flatness of the landscape, and the unforgiving work of settling land that is visited by all the plagues of Egypt. On top of all of this the fact that Canute, the protagonist of the story, lives alone, miles from his closest neighbor. He’s also incapable of communicating when he is around others.

But he was not a social man by nature and had not the power of drawing out the social side of other people. His new neighbors rather feared him because of his great strength and size, his silence and his lowering brows.

“On the Divide”

Canute’s inability to verbally express himself or advocate for himself as a human being, let alone as a potential suitor, allows speculative stories about him to run wild.

Cather builds the tension within Canute and, not surprisingly, he eventually snaps. Instead of going home to repeat the earlier scene with his rifle pressed to his forehead and this time pulling the trigger, he instead picks up Lena and carries her off like a caveman. Albeit one who reestablishes the “civilized lies” by insisting the preacher marry them that night. And even then he doesn’t ravish her, but lies outside the door in the midst of a snowstorm like a faithful dog. He breaks down when Lena says what she says to him. (I can’t spoil the entire story.) It seems more like a breakthrough than a breakdown.

“So it was that Canute took her to his home, even as his bearded barbarian ancestors took the fair frivolous women of the South in their hairy arms and bore them down to their war ships. For ever and anon the soul becomes weary of the conventions that are not of it, and with a single stroke shatters the civilized lies with which it is unable to cope, and the strong arm reaches out and takes by force what it cannot win by cunning.”

As melodramatic as this story is, I enjoyed reading it. I sympathized with Canute and could feel his loneliness and isolation. There are also the multiple ways Cather plays with the word “divide” in this story. It brings to mind a book about Cather called On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather by David Porter. I haven’t read it, but Porter discusses Cather’s use of the Nebraska Divide in her fiction and the divides he sees in her life.

I was struck by this statement the narrator makes: “It may be that the next generation on the Divide will be very happy, but the present one came too late in life.” This is definitely a theme that appears in some of Cather’s later stories like My Antonia. Antonia’s father immigrated to the US with his family and suffers greatly in his new country and his new way of life, but his daughter his happy and prospers.

What do you think?

What do you think of “On the Divide”? Share your thoughts about the story in the comments below. If you haven’t yet read the story, you can read it here at the Willa Cather Archive.

New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!


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